Insecticide-treated nets (ITNs) are a major tool to control malaria. Over recent years increased ITN coverage has been associated with decreased malaria transmission. However, ITN ‘misuse’ has been increasingly reported and whether this emergent behaviour poses a threat to successful malaria control and elimination is an open question. Here, we use a game theory mathematical model to understand the possible roles of poverty and malaria infection protection by individual and emerging ‘community effects’ on the ‘misuse’ of malaria bednets. We compare model predictions with data from our studies in Lake Victoria Islands (LVI), Kenya and Aneityum, Vanuatu. Our model shows that alternative ITN use is likely to emerge in impoverished populations and could be exacerbated if ITNs become ineffective or when large ‘community effects’ emerge. Our model predicted patterns of ITN use similar to the observed in LVI, where ‘misuse’ is common and the high ITN use in Aneityum, more than 20 years after malaria elimination in 1990. We think that observed differences in ITN use may be shaped by different degrees of economic and social development, and educational components of the Aneityum elimination, where traditional cooperative attitudes were strengthened with the malaria elimination intervention and post-elimination surveillance.